Below is the U.S. Perspectives document approved by Socialist Alternative’s September 2021 National Convention.
The situation in the U.S. must be seen in the context of global developments including the pandemic and an economic crisis on a scale unprecedented since the 1930s, as well as the intensifying inter-imperialist rivalry between the U.S. and China. While the pandemic has been somewhat brought under control in wealthy countries due to vaccination campaigns, overall the pandemic has accelerated in 2021 with India, South Asia, and Latin America being particularly devastated. Likewise, while an economic upturn in 2021 brings a promise of a return to normal in wealthy countries, in most of the neocolonial world, the lack of vaccines and extensive stimulus means that poverty is growing exponentially.
In general, economic inequality is growing between wealthy and poor regions, and within all countries — rich and poor — profoundly exacerbating capitalism’s crisis. The devastation facing big sections of society has played a direct role in the heroic rebellions carried out by the working class in a number of countries. In Colombia, Myanmar, and other countries we have seen the resumption of the global rebellion against neoliberalism which began in 2019 and was interrupted by the outbreak of the pandemic. This time around, the working class is asserting itself in a much more developed way, with youth and women workers at the fore. This, and the increasing features of political polarization, are very instructive for U.S. perspectives.
For tens of millions of Americans, the beginning of the summer felt as though we had decisively “turned the corner” on the misery of the past year and a half. Biden had replaced Trump in the White House; mass vaccination and warm weather had pushed COVID numbers far enough down that the economy was widely reopening. But the vaccination drive stalled, and the Delta variant has created a dangerous new spike that is causing significant loss of life and denting the economic recovery.
The ruling class is desperate for the turbulence to be over and for an extended period of stability and growth. However, even a shallow interpretation of the political, economic, and social landscape shows that is not on the cards. Even COVID itself is clearly not behind us with an incredible average of over 2,000 deaths a day in mid-September. Also, with a large section of the U.S. population still unvaccinated, “two Americas” are developing with dramatically different risk levels.
Despite this summer’s economic recovery and partial “return to normal,” we are looking ahead to an extraordinarily turbulent decade. This is because of the objective crises facing the capitalist system globally and domestically for which the ruling class has no way out, the polarization of society in both a leftward and rightward direction, and the increasing confidence of a section of working people and youth to fight back.
In this document, we seek to draw out the key themes that will shape the next several years of developments in the U.S. These include: the temporary nature of the economic recovery and general fragility in the system, extreme and growing polarization in society, a rejection of neoliberal ideology, the loss of faith in major institutions, disillusionment of growing sections of society with Biden, increasing debate on the left between reformist and revolutionary trends, and the potential for massive class battles and social struggle to break out.
Since 2018 we have seen a partial reemergence of a fighting labor movement, and the coming years could see this process go much further. Other social struggles could be triggered by efforts of the ruling class to impose austerity, the threat of climate disaster, the whip of counterrevolution from the right which would spark a serious debate around the need for a left party, or attempts to push back historic gains made by Black people and women. Crucially, we see the relentless assault on abortion rights, including the Dobbs case in front of the Supreme Court and the new law in Texas which prohibits abortion after six weeks and encourages “bounty hunters” to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion. This could spark a major struggle in the coming months.
The deep contradictions in this new phase of capitalist development, combined with the extreme political polarization in society, all point toward explosive struggle being on the agenda in the coming years. This document will attempt to lay out just how explosive the next period in American history will be, the opportunities which will exist for the rapid development of socialist consciousness, and the serious dangers posed by the growth of reaction if the left and a new, fighting wing of the labor movement fail to develop a decisive challenge to the rule of capital.
Role of Perspectives
Marxist perspectives enable us to avoid the trap of mistaking the forest for the trees. By developing a broad characterization of the political, economic, and social landscapes of American and international society, we avoid the temptation to base our program on events as they appear moment to moment. This is a trap that many forces on the left have fallen into, and it leads to the development of programs for action that are too narrow, too broad, or directed away from the working class.
The purpose of perspectives is to evaluate and characterize phenomena as they are developing, and estimate their most likely direction of travel. They are a working hypothesis that help Marxists to prepare to intervene in social struggle.
The starting point for perspectives today has to be the earthshaking developments of the past couple years internationally and domestically. This is the context that frames how we assess perspectives for political developments, social struggle, and the development of consciousness in different sections of society for the next period.
The Past 18 Months
The decade opened up with compounding crises of a monumental scale: a global pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen in 100 years, an economic and social shutdown, mass unemployment, the George Floyd rebellion which became the largest protest movement in U.S. history, and an extraordinarily polarized presidential election that led to Trump’s attempted coup, culminating in the far-right led assault on the Capitol on January 6.
The onset of the pandemic triggered, almost overnight, a total disruption in the day-to-day functioning of society. Millions lost their jobs, small businesses closed en masse, all social interactions outside the home were cut off, and we had to adapt to an entirely new way of living. Images of overflowing morgues and makeshift hospitals ran on a loop. Millions of ordinary people faced levels of devastation unprecedented in their lifetimes. Hundreds of thousands of people died, millions relied on food banks for the first time, and families were forced to adapt to school closures and the nightmare of remote learning.
COVID exposed just how poorly working people are positioned to weather a financial storm. Data from the Census Bureau from throughout the pandemic paints an extremely bleak picture of tens of millions of people out of work, struggling to afford adequate food or cover household expenses, and unable to pay rent. The impacts on Black and Latino working class households, especially those with children, were especially devastating.
At the end of April and beginning of May of this year, several concerning pieces of data were collected. One in nine adults with children reported that their household lacked sufficient food in the last seven days, one in seven renters reported that they were not caught up on rent accrued during the pandemic — for Black renters, that number was nearly one in three — and one in four adults had trouble paying for usual household expenses. This is on top of the mountains of personal debt held by ordinary people. When moratoriums on evictions and debt collection expire, millions will be on the hook for debt they simply cannot afford to pay down. While the federal eviction moratorium expired, many local moratoriums were extended. But this is very uneven and relief for working people will only be on the order of months.
The past year and a half contributed to an extraordinary fraying of the U.S. social fabric that has been underway since the 2008 recession. All indices point toward a severe worsening of the mental health of millions of people. According to one poll taken in June 2020, one out of every four Americans aged 18-24 had “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.” There is an acceleration of the opioid epidemic and a surge in gun violence which are also symptoms of the disaster engulfing whole sections of the working class.
A mass discussion developed last year around who is “essential” which exposed, even if in a narrow sense, the central role of the working class in running society. In New York City at the height of the outbreak, as in many cities in Europe, ordinary people leaned out of their windows and erupted into applause every night at 7:00 PM to honor “essential workers.” All of this was happening alongside an explosion in billionaire wealth, putting a dent in the “we’re all in this together” propaganda of the ruling class.
The pandemic contributed to already growing anger at extreme wealth inequality, with 72% of Americans now agreeing that it is “unfair” that billionaires increased their wealth during the pandemic.
Many working people in the U.S. were only kept afloat by the increased state intervention into the economy in the form of direct aid and moratoriums on evictions and some debt collection. This increased state intervention has raised expectations around the type of support the government is capable of providing to working people. When the ruling class tries to impose more blatant austerity measures, there will be a great deal of anger.
Trump took office against the background of the fallout of the 2008-9 recession, a growing rejection of neoliberal policies from ordinary people across the political spectrum (including the rejection of “free trade” deals like the TPP), as well as a growing crisis of legitimacy in American institutions. This lack of faith in government, big business, and the media helped drive support for both Trump and Bernie Sanders. Today, this crisis of legitimacy remains a major factor driving American consciousness. Public trust in the government remains at historic lows, with only one quarter of Americans saying they can trust the government to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (22%). Faith in the stability of “democracy” was severely damaged by the January 6 storming of the Capitol, which has placed the mammoth task of “saving bourgeois democracy” on Biden’s shoulders.
In 2020, the incompetence of the Trump administration was laid bare for millions as he failed to contain the virus at almost every stage. From the lack of available testing to the daily flip flopping on masks, hand washing, and lockdowns, many felt as though no one was in the driver’s seat. This was of course not a uniform sentiment. Throughout the pandemic, a majority of Republicans had faith that Trump was accurately characterizing the situation and that he was taking the necessary steps to get people back to work. Despite his blunders, he managed to get more votes in the 2020 election than any sitting President in U.S. history and today 53% of Republicans view him as the “true President.”
As we’ll go into further later in this document, Trump’s presidency fundamentally transformed the Republican Party. While at one stage we anticipated a pitched battle between the “Trump wing” and “anti-Trump wing” of the party, it is clear that there are no longer two wings. The entire party bears the mark of the Trump era and the “anti-Trump” former establishment within the party is exceptionally marginalized.
The broad “pro-Trump” section of society can be described as anti-establishment (despite the fact that Trump now functions as the new Republican establishment), deeply mistrustful of the media, and suspicious of institutions. They were drawn to Trump because he “tells it like it is” and wants to “drain the swamp” as well as by his crude appeal to nationalism. Many were drawn to his vicious xenophobia. But within his broad support, there are working class people who supported Trump to a large degree because he promised to bring back good jobs and opposed free trade deals that decimated working class communities. These are people that could be won over to a genuine left-wing, working class program and some of course who would have supported Bernie if he had been the Democratic nominee.
Trump’s broad base of support includes a section of his supporters who have radicalized in a very dangerous right wing direction. These are people who hold a wide range of conspiratorial beliefs, and whose racist, anti-immigrant sentiments have hardened in recent years. The fact that QAnon now has strong support among a section of the right is a dangerous sign pointing to how far right ideas, including white supremacist ideology, can gain a bigger base. While the positive change in attitudes among the broader white population on race over a long period, and especially in recent years, is quite profound, the deep social crisis in American society could lead to a resurgence of virulent racism unless it is challenged by a mass movement of the working class.
On the other pole, recent years have produced an even further radicalization in a leftward direction. This can be seen through Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns as well as the two mass waves of anti-racist protest in the past ten years. Black Lives Matter has had a significant effect on consciousness and in a June 2020 poll, 76% of respondents said racism is a “big problem” in the United States. This is a 25 point jump from 2015.
This leftward shift was on full display through Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign where a central slogan became: “Billionaires should not exist.” The “Bernie coalition” was made up largely of young people generally, Black people, and Latinos.
Bernie’s popularity among Black and Latino youth in particular was due to his distinct working class and anti-racist program, rather than the cynical, corporate identity politics of figures like Kamala Harris. It was an expression of a profound yearning for multiracial unity against the right, the corporate elite, and the structural oppression which this system breeds.
The organization that benefited most decisively from the Bernie phenomenon is the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which now has nearly 100,000 members. This growth is a very important development and many of the key debates on the left in the next period will take place within and around DSA.
Bernie’s capitulation and the establishment’s full court press to derail his campaign, combined with the limited concrete victories coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement, have contributed to a real political disorientation and demoralization among a certain section of left-leaning youth and workers.
Given the depth of radicalization, however, this demoralization is very likely quite shallow and could be overcome rapidly if struggle were to break out.
The Biden Era
Despite the extreme political polarization described above, Biden enjoyed quite a widespread honeymoon in the first six months of his presidency. His approval rating after 100 days was 53% compared to Trump’s 40% at the same time in his presidency. 47% of Republicans approved of Biden’s initial handling of the pandemic and his stimulus package had the support of 60% of Republicans.
Biden’s early honeymoon was driven by his ramping up of state intervention into the economy. This is not just in the context of COVID where both Biden and Trump were forced to intervene, but also his early promises to rebuild American infrastructure and the social safety net.
However, Biden’s early successes in getting COVID under control and bringing economic stability have been severely undermined by the emergence of the Delta variant, which has thrown the recovery off the tracks. Add to this Biden’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan and his extreme difficulty in passing significant parts of his domestic agenda and the honeymoon is now decisively over, with his popularity dropping sharply.
This puts the Democrats in an enormously tenuous position going into the 2022 midterms where, unless they’re able to push through significant social spending, they could very possibly lose both chambers of Congress.
While, in the early stage of Biden’s administration, there was a real sense of relief among ordinary people that an “adult was back in the drivers’ seat,” this relief has turned into demoralization for a certain section of people as he’s failed to really get control of the situation. The weakness of the U.S. left in mounting an alternative to Biden’s anemic administration leaves open the space for the right to make gains.
It is impossible for Marxists to arrive at correct perspectives absent a thorough and thoughtful assessment of the forces at work in the capitalist economy. It is the economic relations in society that form the foundation for political and social developments. We do not limit ourselves to the analysis of bourgeois economists who view capitalism as a fixed and eternal feature of human society and, as such, fail to see capitalist crises as an inherent feature of the system.
They also fail to see that capitalism, like all social systems, has both a progressive phase where it contributes to the development of human productive forces and productivity and a period of decline where it becomes an obstacle to humanity’s further development.
We are, without question, living through an era of profound capitalist crisis and decay. Neoliberalism, the phase in capitalist history beginning in the late 70s, was the result of a profound crisis of profitability. The postwar Keynesian “welfare state” policies had become an obstacle for the capitalists who groped for a way out. New avenues for profit were found in widespread privatization and attacks on the working class and in removing barriers to capital globally through “free trade” deals, a process otherwise known as globalization. Widespread privatization was a temporary cash cow, the collapse of the Soviet block opened up new markets, and widespread financialization allowed for new sources of profit to be found in credit. All of these new avenues for growth were fundamentally unstable and culminated in the 2008 crash. The regime of “free market absolutism” had to be saved from itself through drastic state intervention.
But the trillions poured into the economy through “Quantitative Easing” (the Federal Reserve printing money) were not primarily invested by the capitalists in productive capacity (for example, developing new products, tools, and technical processes) but rather were ploughed back into the financial casino, including through the completely parasitic means of companies buying back their own stock in order to boost the price. The Trump tax cuts, promoted as a way to unleash an “investment bonanza,” had the same result.
As we wrote in our 2016 Economic Perspectives document:
“After 30 years of stagnation for global capitalism, the crash of 2007-8 marked the beginning of a much deeper phase of crisis where capitalism has been broadly exposed as offering no way forward for society. The capitalists are still saddled with neo-liberal policies despite their enormous unpopularity due to their effects over the past decades and the way in which it contributed to causing the crisis. They have not yet found a new model for how to develop their economic rule which can overcome the present crisis in a structural way beyond weak recoveries and new economic setbacks.”
These words ring extraordinarily true today. The economic crisis of the past year was only temporarily overcome because the American ruling class was forced to throw away neoliberal norms even more decisively than in 2008-9. Their reliance on ultra-low interest rates, big government spending, and direct aid to workers may have temporarily resolved the most acute phase of the COVID-triggered recession, but this does not add up to a “new model for how to develop their economic rule which can overcome the present crisis in a structural way.”
It is important that, in the development of economic perspectives, we evaluate both the immediate economic conditions as well as their broader context. To begin, we need a thorough characterization of the state of the recovery.
The State of the Recovery
The onset of COVID shook the foundations of the U.S. and global economies. In 2020, the U.S. economy shrank by 3.5%, the largest amount in 74 years. On the incredible halt in economic activity, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wrote: “The magnitude and speed of collapse in activity that has followed is unlike anything experienced in our lifetimes.”
Through February 2020, total employment had risen every month for 113 straight months. In April 2020, total non-farm employment fell by 20.7 million jobs. This almost single handedly erased the gains from 10 years of job growth.
Sectors that make up the “homebody economy” saw growth at the beginning of COVID. This includes groceries, as well as equipment for home gyms and offices. However, many sectors saw dramatic collapse. Spending on services fell massively across the board, as did spending on health services as many Americans delayed medical visits at the height of COVID spread.
At the end of April 2020, 43% of U.S. adults reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut. Lower income earners overwhelmingly do not have “rainy day funds” meaning that any loss in income would result in a piling up of rental arrears and personal debt.
All of this shook the ruling class. They saw the writing on the wall that the economy could collapse in the way that it did in the 1930s. This pointed directly to the threat of social upheaval like we’d already begun to see in many countries in 2019. While the bosses don’t care about the suffering of the poor, they do care about preserving markets for goods and services and maintaining social stability. This time, because the crisis was triggered by a collapse of demand, they could not simply rely on monetary policy as in 2008-9 but had to go much further with fiscal policy, including by putting money directly in people’s pockets.
By the end of year one of the COVID crisis, lawmakers had enacted six major bills totalling $5.3 trillion. This brought the federal government’s budget deficit to $3.1 trillion in 2020, far surpassing the previous record of $1.7 trillion during the 2008-9 recession.
While the April 2020 CARES Act was correctly characterized as a big business bailout with hundreds of billions going to major corporations like Boeing, it also included substantial direct aid to households totalling $785 billion.
For millions of Americans, this was a sharp contrast to the inaction in 08-09 as the banks were bailed out and millions lost their jobs and their homes. For once in their lives, government appeared to actually be helping them. The trendline of increased direct aid has continued through 2021. The $3,200 in stimulus checks, $600/week and $300/week unemployment top ups, child tax credits, moratoriums on debt collection, and rental assistance amounted to a brand new, if extremely temporary, safety net. All in all, $1.57 trillion in direct aid was committed or disbursed to households. This led to an actual drop in poverty, but 2020 also saw an increase in inequality because of the staggering further wealth being accumulated by the already superrich.
Another feature of the COVID economy was the decimation of many small businesses. While PPP benefits allowed many small businesses to ride out the rolling lockdowns last year, many are now on the hook for debt accrued during the pandemic. The actual figures around business closures are hard to nail down as the Fed doesn’t measure the closure of businesses with no employees, which make up a large section of the most hard hit family run businesses. However, we can be clear that the small business economy took a dramatic hit in the past 18 months and this will only further contribute to opening space for increased domination by major corporations in most industries.
We are now entering the next phase of the COVID economy and exiting the acute phase of the crisis, meaning an end to the era of widespread emergency aid to the working class. We are at the start of a temporary and fragile recovery brought about by the reopening of the economy, widespread vaccination, and pent-up demand.
What Is Behind this Recovery?
Fundamentally what has enabled this recovery is the massive increase in state intervention into the economy. This includes both the fiscal policy of high spending and direct aid to households as well as the Fed’s monetary policy of ultra-low interest rates.
The widespread reopening of the economy is bringing entire industries, like travel and hospitality, out of hibernation. As restrictions are lifted, spending on services is picking up with tremendous speed. This is driven in large part by “pent-up demand.” In other words, many Americans, especially the sections of the middle class and some workers that kept their jobs and worked from home, have extra cash laying around (including money from stimulus checks) after lockdowns depressed opportunities to spend.
The speed of the economic recovery is bringing with it some real turbulence. A key example of this is the sharp rise in prices, i.e. inflation. Inflation is caused by an imbalance in supply and demand. Today, demand is strong with people looking to spend money, but supply-side bottlenecks are slowing down the ability of entire industries to meet that demand. This is not entirely surprising, considering how dramatically supply chains were disrupted during COVID lockdowns. Some examples of supply-side bottlenecks can be seen in lumber, semiconductors, and cargo containers, but perhaps the biggest supply-side bottleneck is the labor shortage. Labor is the source of capitalist profits; without labor raw materials cannot be turned into sellable goods. The ability of business to meet demand is therefore hampered by a shortage of workers willing to work in poor conditions for low wages.
There has been a big debate within the ruling class about whether there is a danger of inflation really taking off. One of the reasons they fear this is that it would be a further spur to the class struggle. However, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, and Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs all argue that the current spike is driven by temporary factors which are likely to be resolved. There is some validity to this analysis, but we should be conditional. The Republicans and neo-liberal economists who argue otherwise are mainly driven by a desire to roll back benefits for working class people and block further spending on a significant scale.
It is indeed fairly likely that over time at least some of these supply-side issues will be overcome. The labor shortage, for example, could ease as many businesses increase wages to entice people back to work, unemployment benefits expire, and children return to in-person school. However, job growth slowed sharply in August and there is also evidence for the “great resignation” as hundreds of thousands look for more fulfilling, better paid work or leave the job market entirely.
Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear as months pass that supply side problems — exacerbated by the Delta variant and the US/China conflict — and above average inflation could be persistent features with important consequences we will describe below.
According to the National Association of Realtors, the median sales price of a home in the U.S. rose to an all-time high of $341,600 in April. Overall, home prices are up 19.1% from just a year ago, also a record for the biggest gain in a year. The drastic rise in home prices presents a particular case of inflation, with some of this driven by a shortage of supply and increased prices for lumber and steel while also taking on the features of a classic bubble. While lumber prices have now dropped, they still remain far above their pre-pandemic level and could remain elevated.
Despite the speed and scale of the recovery, none of it amounts to a permanent solution to the current phase of capitalist crisis. The recovery will be temporary and there is a financial crisis, and another recession, on the horizon.
The Ongoing COVID Crisis
The deadly spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 (and the looming threat of Lambda) is an indictment of the total failure of capitalism to make vaccines accessible to the majority of the world’s population. Without an internationally coordinated vaccination plan, the emergence of new strains of COVID-19 accompanied by new waves of the pandemic are likely to remain a recurring feature for years to come. The worst devastation will be experienced by poorer nations whose vaccine production continues to be blocked by criminal intellectual property patents. Even if the patents are partially waived due to pressure from below, poorer nations will still be challenged by a lack of necessary infrastructure to produce and distribute the vaccine at the necessary scale and speed. Massive pressure also needs to be brought to bear to force rich countries to immediately share their huge excess of vaccine doses with poor countries. Because the pandemic is a global phenomenon, new variants can continue to spread to wealthier nations like the United States and have the potential to act as a regular disruption to economic and social stability.
The spread of the Delta variant in the United States can also be attributed to the slowing vaccination rate which, despite optimism accompanying the vaccine rollout in the spring, stalled in late spring even with an excess in supply. Though there are “breakthrough” cases, data collected by the New York Times suggests that the vast majority of serious COVID cases requiring hospitalization (ranging from 95% – 99.9%) are among the unvaccinated. According to a poll on the CDC website, 26.2% of the US population are on the fence or opposed to vaccination while 73.8% are or plan to be vaccinated — but this is completely insufficient to contain COVID given that the Delta variant is twice as infectious as the original variant of COVID.
Those who have yet to receive the vaccine can largely be divided into two camps. There are those who want the shot but have yet to get it because of a lack of access to paid time off to recover, childcare, or transportation. Then there is also a significant section which refuses to get the vaccine and whose opposition is hardening. The growing influence of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories is part of the larger trend of increased political polarization and radicalization along those poles. The overall decrease in confidence in the political establishment and capitalist institutions — including in public health institutions like the CDC — has left a significant section of working class and middle class people vulnerable to right wing anti-science ideas.
As the Delta variant spreads and pushes more states and counties to reintroduce mask mandates and other measures, demoralization could lead to complications in consciousness. Already a dangerous and partisan “culture war” narrative is emerging in the media which pits working people on both sides of the vaccination question against one another, framed as an ideological battle between social responsibility and personal freedom. Similar to the “Trump phenomenon,” it is the job of serious revolutionaries to go beyond liberal talking points of individual responsibility by exposing the underlying contradictions of capitalism which push working people toward right wing ideas and offering concrete alternatives.
Meanwhile, a section of the ruling class is losing patience with prolonged lockdowns and is looking to vaccine mandates in the workplace as a short-cut to greater economic stability. The Biden administration has announced a plan to require all federal workers to get vaccinated or submit to regular COVID testing and some states, local counties, and private employers are now following suit.
As we say in the September issue of Socialist Alternative, while anger at those who refuse to get vaccinated may be understandable, we must strike a balance: “While we do not support a blanket policy of mandatory vaccination, which could be used as a form of repression, we do support certain measures to protect public health” including requiring health care and education workers to be vaccinated or requiring proof of vaccination to attend high capacity indoor public events. But in workplaces, all such measures require negotiation with workers’ representatives, including things like work from home options where applicable and paid sick days to recover from the effects of vaccination.
It is crucial that Marxists work to cut across divisions in the working class and in the labor movement by pointing to the role that the ruling class has played internationally in undermining public trust for the vaccine, through both the total mismanagement of the COVID crisis and decades of attacks on public health. We also must be prepared to raise positive working class demands that can cut across support for right wing anti-science propaganda, such as Medicare for All, taking pharmaceutical corporations and the medical industry into democratic public ownership, and the formation of democratically elected workplace safety committees that can launch vaccine education campaigns. Ultimately, ending the devastating effects of the pandemic will take global cooperation on a scale for which the rotting capitalist system is not equipped.
Deeper Issues in the System
There is no stable position for capitalism going forward. Despite the frenetic government spending ushering in a short-term recovery, neither the toolkit they used to resolve the 2020 economic crisis nor the one used in 2008 reflect a path to sustainable profitability and a stable political regime for the ruling class. There will not be a long period of capitalist expansion, but rather, we are going to see a volatile economic situation and new phases of crisis.
The spending of the past year and a half has already raised the federal debt to the highest level since World War II. The only scenario in which this level of debt is not a serious problem and a drag on the economy going forward is if there is a period of economic expansion comparable to what happened after World War II. But this is not in the cards. Super low interest rates and low inflation are similarly unsustainable in the longer term. We are already seeing inflation spiking, even if it is, so far, mostly temporary.
Rather than funding his priorities by continuing to drive up the federal debt, Biden has signaled a willingness to tax the rich and corporations to pay for his agenda. Though, whether or not he actually executes these tax increases is in doubt as Biden faces Republican obstructionism and centrist Democrat Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition. There is certainly reason to doubt that he is willing to face this opposition down.
One feature of the COVID-era economic order that will almost certainly continue is the state intervention into the economy.
A return to standard issue austerity is simply unworkable in the short term, especially as millions of Americans have gotten a taste of genuine government support in the form of child tax credits, increased unemployment benefits, and stimulus checks. The current situation, where seven million have been cut off unemployment benefits and three million more have lost the $300 top up, while new forms of support in Biden’s $3.5 “human infrastructure” bill have not passed, is perilous. This is not a full scale return to austerity, but it will push millions into poverty and depress demand in a situation where the recovery is tenuous.
Other factors dooming any return to “free market absolutism” are the ascendency of the Chinese economy as a global power and the spectre of climate change which will require that the ruling class intervene, as we explain more below.
There are numerous vulnerabilities in the American and global economies that will doom any chance of a sustained recovery. As already explained, there has been a profitability crisis going back to the 1970s that triggered the turn to neoliberalism. This provided them with new avenues for growth through massively increasing inequality, exploitation, and various forms of parasitism. These avenues have reached a limit and thus we see a new crisis of profitability posed.
One potential new avenue for profit exists in the transition to green energy. We already see the emergence of new green markets funded by the “activist investment” of financial institutions. This could contribute to a temporary boom, now or in the medium term, but ultimately will not actually stop climate change. This is because of the scale of transformation needed, the conflicting imperialist interests of different countries, and the political obstacles to accomplishing a green transition in the timeframe we have to avoid even more catastrophic “tipping points.”
The main immediate vulnerability in the economy is the existence of widespread speculative bubbles. Bubbles happen when huge piles of money flow into a particular asset, sending the prices skyrocketing. This is followed by a quick decrease in value, referred to as a “crash” or “burst.” There are multiple bubbles that exist today whose bursting could trigger a chain reaction. These bubbles include: corporate debt, bonds, the stock market, housing (though as we said the increase in home prices is not entirely speculative as there’s a real demand for homes), student debt, and cryptocurrency. Some poor countries face sovereign debt crises which could worsen in the coming months in the context of the complete shambles of the vaccination drive globally. This could also be a trigger for a financial crisis.
Finally, while the factors leading to the spike in inflation may be mainly of a short-term character, the spike may be sharp enough to force the Federal Reserve to rapidly raise interest rates. This too could be a trigger for the financial crisis leading to a sharp recession.
All of this paints a picture of a very unstable position for capitalism. Despite the current recovery, there is no perspective for an extended period of growth and inbuilt vulnerabilities mean another economic collapse could be triggered in the near future.
After four years of Trump, the Democrats find themselves in control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since 2008. In both instances, they took office amidst a colossal economic and political crisis and have sought to restore capitalist stability. In both instances, ultimately, they will fail.
The response of the Democratic Party to the 2008 financial collapse has been the source of tremendous debate among bourgeois economists over the past year and a half, with many saying too little support was given to working people. They correctly cite that the “recovery” after 2008 saw the vast majority of economic gains go to the very top, exposing the working class and poor to economic ruin in the context of a renewed crisis.
With the Democrats in office yet again in the aftermath of a financial collapse, and with the reputation of both American imperialism and bourgeois democracy severely damaged, they are taking a different approach. After the passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, he introduced his plan for two infrastructure bills totalling over $4 trillion.
The emphasis on ramping up social spending from the Democratic establishment is further confirmation of what we’ve written regarding the end of the neoliberal era. However, advocating for sweeping intervention and actually carrying it out are two very different things. The Biden administration has hit huge roadblocks in advancing their social spending proposals, and the fate of the Biden administration and Democratic control of Congress hangs on the outcome of these efforts.
What’s Behind Biden’s Spending?
As we wrote in our April article “100 Days of Biden”:
“Everything that has been achieved in the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency needs to be viewed through a very specific lens: What is the ruling class willing to do to defend against total economic collapse?”
The motivation behind Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus was the precarious COVID situation. Without massive state investment, vaccine infrastructure could not get off the ground and any prospect of short term economic recovery was doomed.
Biden used the popularity of his stimulus to launch two infrastructure spending bills, the “American Jobs Plan” and the “American Families Plan.” These bills then turned into a traditional bi-partisan infrastructure bill with almost no climate provisions and a much larger $3.5 trillion bill which includes moderate investments in new green infrastructure, investments in education and childcare, and limited healthcare provisions expanding Medicare. The Democrats intend to use budget reconciliation to pass the second bill which would allow them to bypass Republican support.
The most significant component of these bills is how Biden initially proposed to pay for these measures: through increased taxes on the rich and corporations. However, the Democrats have already walked this back. Rather than going after the enormous wealth of the billionaire class, they are instead targeting income rather than wealth itself and, in the words of the New York Times, “leav[ing] vast fortunes unscathed…It aimed to go after the merely rich more than the fabulously rich.”
There are other glaring inadequacies in these two pieces of legislation. The traditional infrastructure bill, passed with bi-partisan support in the Senate, is essentially a handout to big business. Public investment will be directed toward incentivising big business to act. On the other hand, the larger $3.5 trillion would, despite all its limitations, be the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades. However, it is almost guaranteed that, absent a mass movement, the bill will be dramatically watered down before passing. Already at the time of writing, sweeping immigration reform provisions are likely to be taken out after the Senate Parliamentarian, a totally toothless figure, announced budget reconciliation could not be used to pass immigration reform.
Centrist Democrats like Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have already signalled an unwillingness to support the full $3.5 trillion plan and progressives, for the time being, have suggested they won’t vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the full $3.5 trillion bill is passed alongside it. Nancy Pelosi, for now, is in an alliance with progressives on this question.
These bills, if passed, would be the most significant victory of Biden’s administration and could pull him out of the approval rating danger zone. However, if he’s not able to pass either bill in full and what is written into law is weak in substance, it could be the final nail in the coffin for the Democrats in the 2022 midterms.
Another potentially dramatic failing of the Biden administration will be his inaction in pushing forward the rest of his legislative agenda.
There are several non-budgetary legislative priorities that Biden has identified as key to his first year in office. These include: the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the Equality Act, the Women’s Health Protection Act (AKA the #ActForAbortionAccess) and the For The People Act. Each of these would represent some degree of real meaningful reform for working people. This is not to mention Biden’s promise to return to “comprehensive immigration reform” which the establishment of both parties sought and failed to pass in the 2000s.
All five of these bills are in limbo. With no Republican support, the Democrats have more or less accepted that the bills are doomed. However, the passage of Biden’s legislative priorities ultimately comes down to a measure of political will.
If they were serious about passing any or all of these reforms, they could do away with the filibuster in the Senate and enact them into law with a simple majority. However, this is extremely unlikely for several reasons. One is that getting rid of the filibuster would eliminate their primary excuse for inaction: Republican opposition. The second, however, is that the filibuster is their protection against an unruly Republican simple majority if they lose control of the Senate. And lastly, Manchin has signalled unwillingness to vote in favor of abolishing the filibuster — though again, this could be overcome through sufficient pressure if they were willing to exert it.
The Democrats are unwilling to do anything that would upset the structural balance of the American political system and are therefore, in practice, willing to accept a degree of bipartisan gridlock. This puts them in a very dangerous position in the 2022 midterms.
If the Congressional midterm elections were held today, the Democrats would very likely lose based on Biden’s low approval rating, and the stalling of the Democratic agenda. If the Republicans win control of either or both houses in 2022 — and given the level of polarization — this will essentially mean no progressive measure gets through Congress between then and 2024, barring mass upheaval.
If the Republicans are able to pass a slew of bills attacking voting rights at the state level, this could also help deliver the Republicans a victory in 2022. This threat, combined with likely GOP primary victories for far-right, fringe candidates angling to become figureheads of Trumpism, could provide the “whip of counterrevolution” to accelerate the crisis inside the Democratic Party. After the midterms, if the GOP wins control of the House or Senate, the left could perceive that the legislative path is blocked. This could lead to generalized protests, like Occupy Wall Street’s development following the Tea Party’s victories in the 2010 midterms.
It is most likely that Biden and the Democratic leadership accept defeat on non-budgetary bills, meaning very little will be accomplished in the way of meaningful legislative reform with a real possibility of angering and temporarily demoralizing sections of their base.
Biden’s Primary Motivator
While the acute economic crisis drove much of Biden’s early priorities, especially the vaccination campaign which was a key ingredient in jump-starting the economy, Biden’s central priorities are motivated by long-term crises, centrally the new Cold War with China and the increasing urgency of the climate crisis.
As the International Socialist Alternative has explained, the rise of Chinese imperialism has posed a huge challenge to weakened but still dominant U.S. imperialism. Trump went on the offensive against China in a crude way, but this reflected a shift in the overall thinking of the ruling class. They have turned away from the long term attempt to engage China and instead have adopted an increasingly confrontational approach. This has led to a trade war and the beginnings of a “decoupling” of the two economies. Last year saw a further weakening of the position of the U.S. globally vis a vis China with the chaotic last months of the Trump administration including an uncontrolled COVID outbreak, and — crucially — the events of January 6.
After the January 6 coup attempt, the front page of the Global Times’, a CCP run Chinese tabloid, read: “An iconic humiliation! The madness of the Capitol [incident] has dragged the US’s standing [as a democracy] into its Waterloo!”
In this context, an overwhelming priority in both Biden’s foreign and domestic policy will be to shore up bourgeois democracy. This is essential to maintaining social order in the U.S. and is a key asset in their global campaign against China’s totalitarian regime. We should constantly underline the complete hypocrisy of U.S. imperialism’s democratic pretensions when they provide weapons to the Colombian, Israeli, and Egyptian regimes (and many others) who are murdering people in the streets. Also, while the domestic “anti-extremism” and “defense of democracy” campaign has been focused on the far right, the ruling class definitely has the left in its sights as well. The recall campaign against Kshama in Seattle is a prime example.
This is the context of Biden’s ongoing “democracy offensive.” We should not think for a second though that the only front in the U.S.’ anti-China campaign is diplomacy and propaganda. The U.S. is increasingly intervening to check the Chinese military buildup in the Pacific currently concentrated in the South China Sea and also aimed at Taiwan which could, at a certain stage, lead to armed conflict. But the biggest arena of confrontation is economic. For example, Biden signed an executive order banning Americans from investing in Chinese companies linked to China’s “military industrial complex.” There was also the recent ANKUS pact between the U.S., Britain, and Australia to provide Australia with American nuclear submarine technology.
Biden’s policy, despite all the rhetoric about democracy, is thoroughly nationalist and protectionist. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric directly contributed to the wave of anti-Asian attacks in 2020. While Biden denounces such attacks, the continuing nationalist ramping up of the anti-China campaign is a key part of the context for why the anti-Asian attacks have continued under Biden. Socialist Alternative and ISA stand opposed to all imperialism. We oppose both “free trade” policies which are always anti-working class as well as protectionism which ends up pitting workers of different nations against each other.
Biden’s broad priorities are colored almost entirely by the need to reassert the dominance of U.S. capitalism against rising Chinese power. This has taken shape most clearly through the debates in Washington about moving toward renewable energy which is a not so veiled attempt to undercut China in the context of the compounding challenges of reining in the climate disaster.
To be clear, the only hope the U.S. has to check the rise of China is to step up state intervention in the economy. This includes investment in new technology, measures to bring production in “strategic sectors” back to the U.S., and retooling the nation’s infrastructure. The most recent step is the bipartisan $250 billion industrial policy bill which was passed in the Senate. In going down this path, the U.S. and other Western powers are moving towards elements of state capitalism in the sense of the capitalist state increasingly directing key sectors of the economy, even if these sectors remain in private hands. This has been seen in many countries in the past, including in the U.S. in the interwar period. This trend will become more pronounced as the conflict with China heats up and the climate crisis worsens. It should be stressed though that the U.S. is still a very long way from the totalitarian state capitalism which dominates in China.
As an article in the NYT (June 7) pointed out regarding the new bill:
“It is an especially striking shift for Republicans, who are following the lead of former President Donald J. Trump and casting aside what was once their party’s staunch opposition to government intervention in the economy. Now, both parties are embracing an enormous investment in semiconductor manufacturing, artificial intelligence research, robotics, quantum computing and a range of other technologies.
“What is most striking about the legislation is the degree to which the projects that the bill funds closely parallel those in China’s ‘Made in China 2025’ program, which funnels huge government spending into technologies where the country is seeking to be independent of outside suppliers. The Chinese government announced its initiative six years ago.”
We are likely to see a continued escalation in inter-imperialist tensions between the U.S. and China which will take shape particularly around the country’s responses to the climate crisis. As we stated above, it is not ruled out that these tensions could lead to a hot war, though an all-out war involving nuclear weapons would clearly be disastrous. Therefore, any conflict will most likely be limited in scope.
The other tremendous motivator for Biden and the broader ruling class is the increasingly dire nature of the climate crisis which poses a historic challenge for them to overcome. Capitalism itself will be undermined if it doesn’t take drastic action to rein this in. While, for a brief period, battling climate change could present a new avenue for profitable development, ultimately climate change, if not reversed, will undermine profit. It will disrupt the food supply, water supply, and most coastal land. This reality is forcing the ruling class to act and will itself be a huge factor in the inevitable growth of state intervention demonstrating the complete incapacity of the “free market” to address the key questions of our time. However, there are enormous political obstacles standing in the way of this. The polluting sectors of corporate America remain a behemoth force that will ferociously resist any attempt to undermine their ability to make a profit. We’ve already seen these obstacles assert themselves in the context of the concessions to Biden’s infrastructure package described above.
Since the weak 2015 Paris Climate Accord, 60 big banks have poured $3.8 trillion into fossil fuel investments. Green energy growth has not replaced carbon-based energy production, but only supplemented it. In the U.S., oil production has doubled in the last decade, and electric and hybrid cars still represent less than 5% of all cars on U.S. roads. The market, left to itself, has failed and cannot make the critically necessary rapid shift to green energy.
A central task for Marxists in developing perspectives is evaluating consciousness. We do not develop our program purely around what is most likely given objective conditions. The key ingredient in our program lies in the answer to these questions: to what extent does the working class see itself as a class whose interests are opposite those of the ruling class? What are working people willing to fight for? What are the divisions within the working class that need to be overcome? And perhaps most important: what is in the objective interests of the working class at any given point?
Consciousness in the U.S. today can be defined by two key features: extreme polarization and increased radicalization on both poles.
COVID dramatically upended the lives of ordinary people. Millions were faced with immense loss unlike anything they’d experienced before, including loss of work and wages, loss of loved ones, and loss of meaningful time engaging with others. This had a profound effect on consciousness. At the height of COVID, 43% of U.S. adults reported that the pandemic had a serious impact on their mental health. More than half of adults with children reported a concern for the mental wellbeing of their children. In a survey from June 2020, 13% of adults reported new or increased substance use due to the pandemic, and 11% reported thoughts of suicide in the previous 30 days. Among young adults, the numbers are even starker.
Between March and June of 2020, trust in the federal government fell by 15 points from an already low starting point. In this same time frame, trust in public health officials fell by 10 points from 87% to 77%.
During COVID, Americans’ confidence in a wide range of institutions remained abysmally low. In 2020, fewer than one in five Americans had confidence in Congress, television news, or big business. Between one in four and one in three U.S. adults had confidence in the criminal justice system, newspapers, and big tech. Thirty-nine percent had confidence in the presidency. The only two institutions that saw a dramatic leap forward in public trust were public schools and the medical system. This is no doubt related to the titanic pressures placed on health care workers and teachers who, alongside other “essential workers,” managed to keep society running.
The Biden Honeymoon
In May, 64% of Americans polled said they were optimistic about the direction of the country. Just three months later, that number plummeted to 45%. Within the section of society that had illusions in Biden back in May and were warmly anticipating a “return to normal,” there were broadly two layers. There was one with more substantial illusions who fervently hoped Biden’s presidency was a permanent end to the Trump-era madness. And there was another layer whose illusions in Biden were extremely shallow. This layer is made up largely of young people who overwhelmingly rejected Trump and supported Biden’s active intervention into the crisis. This is the section whose illusions have more seriously dissipated.
There is a small but growing layer of society to the left of those described above, and these are people who never had illusions in Biden or the Democratic Party establishment. Many of these people likely supported Bernie and were demoralized by his capitulation. They were also likely active in the BLM revolt last summer and have been demoralized by the lack of concrete victories coming out of it. This is an exceptionally important layer for us to speak to, especially as many of them run the risk of drawing ultra left conclusions. They can easily develop a dismissive attitude toward working people who still have some illusions in Biden. This would be a real obstacle as they could find themselves facing away from the working class at the key moment when they draw more decisive conclusions.
There is a significant section of working and young people in the U.S. who are radicalizing in a leftward direction. The most concrete expressions of this were Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 presidential runs which saw historic levels of support for a self-identified democratic socialist, the Black Lives Matter rebellion, as well as the growth of DSA.
Since the Great Recession of 2008-9, young people’s positive attitudes toward capitalism have fallen by 14%. Young adults support some type of “socialism” by a greater margin than other generations. Remarkably, 56% of Democrats generally (polled last August) reported that they view socialism more favorably than capitalism.
We need look no further than the Bernie Sanders’ campaign and Black Lives Matter rebellion for proof of this phenomenon. In both instances, millions of people — mainly working class and young people — flooded into political activity. In the case of the Bernie campaign, they were activated around a bold, left-populist program that in many ways went farther than his 2016 program. In 2020, reflecting the shift in consciousness, he placed greater emphasis on the class struggle and the role of social movements in driving history, including by using his mailing lists to mobilize to picket lines.
We’ve also seen the growth of DSA to nearly 100,000 members. Up to this point, DSA’s biggest growth spurts have mostly come as the result of electoral developments, and this will likely remain the case. DSA will likely continue to grow modestly in the short-term but can see bigger bumps in membership as a result of DSA electoral victories in 2021 local elections, and potentially more so in the 2022 midterms.
Within DSA there is increasing debate on a number of issues, and the majority of leading members in DSA have moved to the right in the context of the Biden honeymoon. The Squad has repeatedly covered for Biden, and the DSA leadership has covered for the Squad, completely unwilling to criticize their conciliatory approach. This move to the right includes doubling down on use of the Democratic Party ballot line and the “dirty break.” We have seen outright hostility from the leadership toward many of our proposals to strengthen DSA in a leftward direction, particularly around independent politics and the need for left elected officials to openly clash with the Democratic establishment in order to defend working class interests.
Many rank-and-file DSA members have of course been affected by the Biden honeymoon as well, though this will have more of a temporary character and is less ideologically rooted than the leadership’s rightward drift. This includes some of them openly embracing Kautskyism and popular frontism. As the Biden honeymoon winds down for the advanced layer, tens of thousands of DSA members will become increasingly frustrated with the leadership’s reformist approach and increasingly open to revolutionary ideas. This could become especially acute in the likely event that the DSA leadership fails to develop an independent and politically strong orientation to next year’s midterm elections. However, it’s not a guarantee that this will result in the development of an organized left wing within DSA.
Given DSA’s hyper-decentralization, one possibility is that we see an increase in DSA members working together to take their own initiatives, but independent from the actual structures and organization of DSA. One example of this is Robin Wonsley’s independent, openly socialist campaign for Minneapolis City Council this year. However, unless an alternative organization or new party forms, which in the near future is not likely, DSA will continue to act as a pole of attraction for a particular section of newly radicalizing people.
The biennial DSA Convention took place this August, and despite being nearly twice the size as during their 2019 Convention, there were fewer resolutions and fewer candidates running for the National Political Committee. In the leadup to the convention, there was talk of making this a “consensus Convention,” with several resolutions having been co-authored by leading members previously thought to have been on opposite sides of DSA politically. In reality, this “consensus” represented much of the previously-left leadership moving to the right.
The former left-leadership has adopted a more clearly reformist outlook which can be seen through their unwavering defense of the Squad. This political slide to the right can be characterized by a general lack of faith in the working class to act. They believe that because there is not a “socialist majority” in the realm of consciousness, that the best the leadership of the workers movement can do is move the needle ever so slightly.
In the case of last summer’s Black Lives Matter rebellion, which became the largest protest movement in U.S. history, demands around the state’s budgetary priorities, like the demand to defund the police, were front and center. This is certainly a step forward from the first iteration of Black Lives Matter in 2014, where the demands were very limited. The other demand that was raised by a section of the movement was for reparations. This demand was raised in extremely varied ways throughout the country, including in ways with which we would disagree (for example, that the money for reparations should come from non-Black working class people).
However, the absence of democratic structures meant that the movement could not sustain itself past the summer, falling instead into increasingly small actions around monuments, etcetera. With a lack of clarity around formulating precise demands or developing a strategy to win them, a section of BLM activists have relegated themselves to raising propagandistic, utopian demands such as “abolish the police,” which as we’ve explained, cannot be achieved under capitalism because of the necessity of a repressive state apparatus in maintaining capitalist rule. This has drawn a section of BLM leaders further away from the working class who broadly do not support that demand because of understandable fears about the impact on public safety and correctly do not understand what would replace the police.
At this point, the result has been no significant defunding of the police anywhere and this, compounded with the aggressive moves by mainly Republican legislatures to criminalize protest and to legalize attacks on protesters, have created a broad sense among people that the movement has not won concrete victories. Many Democratic politicians have now brazenly taken up the call to “fund the police” pointing to the rise in violent crime. One result of this has been the further development of a bitter kind of identity politics, as we saw with the ultra left takes on the establishment of Juneteenth as a Federal holiday. It has also opened the space for the emergence of “woke capitalism” and corporate co-optation of the movement which we will detail below.
The willingness of a growing section of the American working class to move into action against racism is extraordinarily positive. Had there been real leadership that articulated a program and strategy to win, the movement could have gone much further. This is especially the case because many of the active elements in BLM were prepared to support Bernie’s broad, pro-working class program, showing that the desire existed for a far reaching, left wing alternative.
The opposition to racism that motivated millions to take to the streets last summer has to be contrasted, however, with the passive obsession with performative and individual symbolic “actions” as a way to “fight racism” that consumes a big section of the middle class. This is an unhealthy development that does nothing to build an actual struggle against racism.
This obsession has led to an entirely new industry aimed at white middle class progressives (especially women) to repent for their role in perpetuating racism. The bible for this industry is Robin DiAngelo’s terrible book White Fragility, as well as Ibram X.Kendi’s book How To Be An Anti-Racist. A particularly ridiculous example of this phenomena is the emergence of “dinner parties to smash white fragility” (“Race2Dinner”) where, for $5,000, two women of color will facilitate a discussion among eight white women about unpacking their privilege. The tone of this intervention is supposed to be so brutal that there is a “crying room” that a woman must leave to if her fragility causes her to cry.
There has been a temporary demoralization among a certain section of the left brought on by Bernie’s capitulation and the partial defeat of Black Lives Matter. Despite these defeats, however, the developments in consciousness are extraordinarily significant and are an indication that key sections of working people and youth could move into action rapidly in the coming period. The demoralization after Bernie’s capitulation was cut across by the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and we will see this process repeat itself.
Convulsions in society will provide more opportunities for the development of class consciousness, consciousness around the need for struggle, and even for revolutionary socialist ideas.
It would be tremendous for the development of the socialist movement and working class liberation if the story ended there, but unfortunately it does not. On the opposite end of the polarization is the section of middle class and working class people being pulled further towards right wing ideas, with a smaller section being pulled deeper into conspiracy theories and towards the far right.
Tens of millions of people voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Many millions of them voted for Trump because they saw him as the only real option against the thoroughly pro-corporate, establishment Biden. According to a Washington Post poll, 15% of Bernie voters in 2020 planned to vote for Trump. While this is a relatively small minority, it still represents more than a million people. Bernie’s capitulation in 2016 also benefited Trump, as many of those who may have supported him in 2016 but instead voted for Trump were not won back over to Bernie in 2020. But this does show that there are potentially big sections of the pro-Trump coalition that can be won over to a left wing program if a real mass movement of working people, independent of corporate influence, were to emerge that was unwilling to make endless concessions to the establishment.
However, there is also a section of the pro-Trump coalition that has radicalized in a rightward direction. Even within this layer there is a wide variation of consciousness and not all of them can be described as “far right,” though there is certainly the possibility that more will be pulled in that direction.
January 6 was a turning point. This brought out a patchwork of forces on the right and far right, ranging from QAnon conspiracy theorists to Proud Boys. The organized groups have declined in the wake of the storming of the Capitol. However, the violent far-right sentiment continues to grow, as exhibited by the increase in cars driving into protests.
As we’ve written many times since the election, despite Trump’s loss, the ground is extremely fertile for the further growth of the far right in the U.S. Far-right organizations in this period can rise, dissolve, and change rapidly as they make mistakes or are seen as fighters. The Proud Boys are an example and are on the decline since their height in 2019 and coming out denouncing Trump after January 6.
While the outcome of January 6 represented a temporary setback for the far right overall and contributed to their further marginalization and internal divisions, it also presented a recruitment opportunity for them. It drew them closer to a much broader layer within the Republican Party’s base. The ideas that the election was stolen from Trump and that “Critical Race Theory” is destroying the already “liberal” education system, as well as the recent increase in gun violence are all given a huge audience through Fox News, preparing millions to hear far-right views. As of May 2021, 53% of Republicans believed Trump to be the “true president.” A September CNN poll found that 59% of Republicans say that believing that Trump won the election is an important part of what being a Republican means to them.
Among Trump voters there is widespread support for conspiracy theories. Just months before the election, polling found that 56% of Republicans believe the QAnon conspiracy theory is mostly or partly true. That number is now 23% which reflects the reality that QAnon’s insistence that Trump would take back the White House was not borne out. However, this 23% is also much more hardened than the 56% last year.
The hardening of conspiratorial thinking was on full display in a May poll that showed nearly 30% of Americans agree that there is a “storm coming” which will “sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” The same margin also said that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to get the country back on track. This is far from being an exclusively American phenomenon. The belief in conspiracy theories, especially on the right, including support for QAnon, has grown in a number of European countries, including Britain and Germany in the last period.
This extreme polarization has affected white rural and suburban workers and middle-class people in particular.
Another contributor to the hardening of the far right is the backlash to Black Lives Matter, where right wing media seized on people’s fear of civil unrest to paint protesters as violent rioters. While, overall, white people’s views on race have improved dramatically in the last 15 years, the BLM backlash led to the hardening of racist ideas among a minority.
However, it’s also important to note that the growth of the far right could provide a “whip of counter-revolution” that spurs the rapid development of the left.
This points to the critical importance of our ongoing agitation around the need for a left party that can be a counter weight to right populist and even far right ideas. A left party with a working class program could channel the anti-establishment and anti-big business sentiments of a certain section of Americans currently flirting with the right. It would also provide left wing workers and young people with an actual tool to systematically challenge and undermine the right beyond one off protests.
While social media algorithms can develop insular “bubbles” with narrow political ideas on both the left and the right, pandemic lockdowns resulted in pushing millions of people to almost exclusively on-line engagement for a large period of 2020. George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police went viral across social media and sparked a mass rebellion, including solidarity demonstrations across the globe. This reignited a new phase of the Black Lives Matter movement with numerous demonstrations popping up online continuously while ordinary people searched for ways to carry the movement forward. Similar to Fridays for Future’s calls to action against climate change, these demonstrations were driven particularly by young people who feel confident just throwing up online calls-to-action to organize their networks.
However, viral protests largely organized through social media are often structureless and lack clear leadership, leaving a void that can easily be taken up by the Democratic Party, their affiliated NGOs, or, on the other hand, ultra-left groups. Unfortunately, it can be hard to determine which events will “go viral,” and learning how to properly estimate attendance is key for us to build the correct intervention to have an impact with genuine Marxist ideas.
For many people, social media activism doesn’t automatically connect to sustained organizing in the streets or workplace. This has led to the development of the “extremely online left,” and has driven a surge in ultra-leftism online, with a small but growing segment of young people identifying as “Marxist-Leninists” who defend the state actions of China and other right-wing governments. There is a larger and more genuine layer that attempts to engage in online organizing, but has little to no relationship with forces on the ground. For example, the proposed “general strike” on October 15th has a small echo on TikTok, but comment sections show that many of its supporters don’t see the value in connecting the call for a general strike to the labor movement. Social media news and politics can also lead to alienation and pessimism, or “doomscrolling,” popularized during the pandemic to describe the draining experience of scrolling through endless bad news and violent images, with no clear route to actual organizing.
The Left in Office + Democratic Party
The two Bernie campaigns and the election of the Squad represented an existential challenge for the Democratic establishment. Bernie’s enormously popular working class, left populist program is anathema to the party’s leadership, and there was a serious risk that, if they did not get it under control, the left could force a crisis in the party which could have even led to the beginnings of a new party.
The establishment’s pre-Super Tuesday coup against Bernie in the 2020 primaries was a masterclass in undermining progressives. With the spectre of a Trump reelection looming large, Bernie completely bent the knee to the establishment and rapidly dismantled his campaign. Bernie’s capitulation to the establishment both in 2016 and 2020 were thoroughly criminal moves that left millions of working class people and youth with no political compass. This is especially terrible considering that the context for Bernie’s 2020 capitulation was the COVID public health and economic crisis. Had he remained in the race and fought for measures like broad unemployment benefits, Medicare for All and suspension of rent, he could have laid the basis for a new party and a historic breakthrough for working class resistance.
He chose instead to attack those of his supporters who could not be moved to support Biden. This, combined with Biden’s widely popular early achievements, allowed the establishment to regain control of the situation.
The Left Holds the Balance of Power, What Are They Doing With It?
With such narrow majorities in Congress, progressives hold the balance of power. In the House, just five Representatives can hold up any piece of legislation. In the Senate, that number is one. This means that the Squad plus their close allies could play an important role in determining the agenda in the House, and Sanders alone could do that in the Senate. But it’s remarkable that Joe Manchin is turning out to be a more formidable opponent to Biden’s agenda than Bernie.
However, as we warned in the November 2020 article “With Friends Like These Who Needs Enemies?”, for the Squad and Bernie to actually exercise their potential strength would require a dramatic change in their approach. They would need to abandon the strategy of trying to win over the establishment.
To the detriment of millions of working class people, they have not only not abandoned this strategy, they have doubled down on it.
From #ForceTheVote to the debate on the inclusion of a $15/hour minimum wage in the stimulus bill, the Squad and Bernie Sanders have done very little to advance their alleged priorities.
As Biden’s climb-downs mount, the pressure on the Squad and Bernie to challenge him will grow. This could crystallize as the discussions about Biden’s infrastructure spending enter the mainstream in a more serious way. He has already walked back several early proposals to raise the corporate tax rate to 28% and to go after billionaire wealth.
While AOC and the Squad have so far held firm to the idea that they will not support a bi-partisan infrastructure bill unless it’s passed alongside the broader $3.5 trillion social spending bill, the reality is that this is no different from the position taken by Nancy Pelosi. What would differentiate the approach is if AOC launched a grassroots movement to back up these threats, but it is very unlikely she does this. AOC is venturing further and further in the direction of being a liberal darling rather than a representative of the working class.
The Squad and Bernie’s endless campaign of providing left cover for Biden has broken open debates on the left about the role of leftists in elected office and the nature of the Democratic Party.
This has taken form particularly within and around DSA, whose leaders are under immense pressure to toe the line and provide cover for AOC. This has contributed to the rightward drift by many DSA leaders. While the leadership itself has a range of views on some issues, it’s likely that some of these divisions will be temporarily papered over in the medium term in the interest of consolidating the reformist wing.
Our best contribution to these discussions will be the example of our independent council office. Socialist Alternative’s profile has increased, and this is in large part due to our work in Seattle using elected office as a vehicle for class struggle through building social movements. Our refusal to make unnecessary concessions to establishment Democrats provides a key example of what an independent, working class approach should look like. At the same time, the Squad has been unprepared to clash with the Democratic establishment.
There will also be a section of people who, as described above, draw ultraleft conclusions in reaction to the concessionary approach of the existing left leadership. They could develop a crude anti-electoralist attitude and, based on their lack of faith in the working class to act, may wind up focusing narrowly on “base building” and mutual aid efforts.
The overall trend within the Democratic Party in the short term, however, points away from a perspective of all-out conflict between existing elected progressives and the establishment. In the short term, progressives are not likely to exert serious pressure on the establishment. It is more likely that the establishment retains its firm grip on the party and that pressures on progressives to concede mount. This will be especially the case as we enter the midterm elections and the party is fighting to hang onto its majorities. What can change this equation is the real development of the class struggle and major social movements that force Bernie and the Squad into a more oppositional stance.
This could sharpen discussions in society about the need for a new, left party free from the grip of the Democratic establishment. This process could be sped up by the whip of counter revolution from the right.
In our 2016 U.S. perspectives document we posed the question: “can the Trump phenomenon lead to the formation of a new far right party?” Our answer was: “while it remains unclear how serious Trump is in pushing his agenda in the medium term, it is very definitely the case that the Trump phenomenon is the outline for such a party.”
While we underestimated the possibility of a Trump victory, our perspectives around the deep crisis in the Republican Party and the potential for the development of a far right or right populist party have generally been borne out.
The Republican Party has been so thoroughly overtaken by Trumpist elements that it is exceedingly hard to imagine the “moderate” wing regaining control in the near or medium term and provoking the departure of the right populists to form a new party. Instead, the former establishment will be forced to adapt and keep their heads down or become further marginalized, as the Republican Party continues to be dominated by Trumpian forces.
The Marginalized Former Establishment
After the coup attempt culminating in the assault on the Capitol, the “anti-Trump” moderates in the party tried to regain control. It appeared momentarily that they might succeed as even some powerful establishment figures who had backed Trump up again and again, including Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell, were forced to denounce him. Lindsay Graham went as far as to say, “Count me out, enough is enough.”
However, several months later and any hopes of the former establishment retaking control of the Republican Party seem almost completely doomed. The Republican Party has been transformed into the party of Trump. Again, this is not just a U.S. development. A number of right wing parties in other countries, including the Partido Popular in Spain and even the Tories in Britain, have been partially “Trumpified.” This is one element of political polarization internationally.
A February poll showed that 75% of Republicans wanted Trump to play a “prominent role” in the party. As of September, a previously mentioned CNN poll found that 63% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents still believe Trump should lead the party. These are the views held by the average Republican voter, with the activists in the party being even more doggedly pro-Trump, although there is a real anti-Trump minority which can cost them electorally if they stay home and do not vote.
This has posed an enormous challenge for the anti-Trump, former establishment of the party. The figure most emblematic of this phenomenon is Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney — an architect of neo-conservatism. Cheney, who has been vocally critical of Trump, once referred to him as “a threat America has never seen before.”
In May of this year, House Republicans voted to remove her from her post as the third most powerful Republican in the House for being insufficiently loyal to Trump. Eight in ten Republicans who had heard of her removal agreed she “deserved it.”
Following her removal, it was announced that a group of 100 Republicans, including a number of former prominent elected officials, were threatening to form a new party if the GOP did not decisively distance itself from Trumpism.
The weakness of this development is demonstrated by the fact that they will not even announce the names of the “100 Republicans,” showing how very unlikely it is they would follow through. It also shows how thoroughly undermined and frustrated they are within the party they formerly controlled. While they do not yet have a platform, the spokesperson for “the 100,” former Trump-era Department of Homeland Security official Miles Taylor, described them as supporting “free minds, free markets, and free people.” This is quite distinct from Trump’s right-populism which has captured the party.
Whether or not these people do split and form a new party will have very little impact on the current direction of the GOP beyond affecting their electoral prospects. The GOP is decisively on course to be a right-populist party with a mass base that cannot be used by the bourgeois at this time as part of the “normal” functioning of the American “two party system.” This system which includes historically a significant amount of bipartisanship has been an enormous asset for the ruling class. If it breaks up this poses real dangers for them. But despite this populist turn, it will not prevent the GOP from adopting many anti-worker policies that may be supported by a section of the ruling class.
Priorities of the Republican Party
In the context of the Biden honeymoon, the GOP has doubled down on a strategy of whipping up their base around social issues and obstinately refusing to work with the Biden administration.
Not a single Republican voted for Biden’s stimulus bill, and they have signalled a similar refusal to support any spending measure from the administration unless dramatic concessions are made. This strategy can harden the loyalty of their existing supporters, though, with Biden’s spending proposals finding widespread popularity, it is unlikely to expand their base.
If the economic recovery were to fall apart, however, that could change. In the meantime, Republican lawmakers are focusing on riling up their base by introducing a swath of anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ bills around the country. The number of anti-trans bills being introduced now is far greater than even that at the height of the “bathroom bill” backlash in 2017 and 2018.
These attacks on women and LGBTQ people could spur real struggle. This is especially the case if the Supreme Court looks poised to seriously undermine or overturn Roe v. Wade which could be the result of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case which will be decided in 2022.
Another priority of the GOP in the coming year will be their ongoing attacks on democratic rights. This includes both attacks on voting rights and the right to protest. This will affect the results of the 2022 election where, if successful, their attempts at redistricting and restricting voter access could deliver them seats in Congress.
The GOP has already its sights set on the 2024 election where we could see a Trump-like figure, or even Trump himself, challenge Biden in a highly polarized battle.
A situation like this, where the Biden honeymoon is long over and the weakness of the Democrats again opens up the space for the right, could spur the rapid development of the left. In the context of the Republicans being a right-populist party with a mass base and the Democrats potentially being the more reliable party of big business, this could lead hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of radicalized young people and workers to draw the conclusion that we need a left alternative. This is a situation we need to seriously prepare for through our relentless agitation around the need for a break from the Democratic Party. This will, of course, be a contradictory situation. Alongside the desire for a left alternative, there will also be tremendous lesser evilism, and the pressure to bend the knee to the Democratic establishment will be very strong.
A Favorable Situation for Workers Struggle
At our last national convention, we discussed extensively the teachers’ revolt which began in West Virginia in February 2018 and spread over the course of the next year to a number of cities and states. This marked a reemergence of a fighting wing of the labor movement in a more developed way than had been seen since the UPS strike of 1997.
The strike wave spread to hotel workers and higher education workers. In 2019, it spread to grocery workers and culminated in the historic strike at GM. However, both the GM strike and the teachers strike in Chicago that year were sold short by weak leadership and poor or non-existent strategy, despite the determination of workers to fight.
2018 saw the highest number of workers on strike since 1986, and 2019 was also near this level. But by other measures, including total numbers of strikes or total workdays lost, it was still far below the levels of previous highpoints of the class struggle in the U.S., such as the late 60s-early 70s or the years right after World War II.
The pandemic inevitably cut across this strike wave, partly because of lockdowns and mass unemployment. Nevertheless, there were important struggles in 2020 (most of which would not show up in official strike statistics) centered around fighting for a safe workplace during the pandemic, for hazard pay, and against unsafe reopenings. These included walkouts, strikes, and protest actions by healthcare and education workers, and workers at Amazon warehouses, Whole Foods, automobile plants, some food delivery services, farms, and at food processing and meatpacking plants. These actions showed the massive anger of workers, their willingness to fight, and a changed consciousness among “frontline workers.”
We should expect ongoing actions in some essential industry workplaces where we haven’t seen much struggle yet. One example is the strike authorization vote by Smithfield workers in South Dakota. This is a pork plant that had a huge COVID outbreak last year and which produces 5% of all the U.S.’s pork products. Another example is a recent strike of truck drivers for Shaw’s grocery stores in New England. Reports about both situations cite workers’ anger about working through COVID in terrible conditions as the key thing driving them to fight for higher wages and better benefits and conditions. This shows COVID’s lasting impact on the consciousness of essential workers.
A Favorable Conjuncture
The economic upturn and the “labor shortage” are creating a favorable conjuncture for workers. A recent New York Times piece (June 6) entitled “’Historic’ Shift in Labor Force Favors Workers” pointed out that, even before the pandemic, a tightening labor market was forcing employers to reduce qualifications for certain jobs and offer inducements to recruit and retain workers, either higher wages or more flexible work schedules.
A certain psychological barrier has been broken. As the New York Times article points out, “That follows decades in which union power declined, unemployment was frequently high and employers made an art out of shifting work toward contract and gig arrangements that favored their employees. [But] it would take years of change to undo those cumulative effects.”
Workers will not have years before the next phase of the crisis hits, ending this temporary favorable balance of forces. But, to really take advantage of the situation requires organization. Unionization levels remain at historic lows at only 10.8%, with union density in the private sector at a mere 6.2%, though in the public sector it remains at a comparatively high 33%.
Lessons of Bessemer
The recent unionization drive at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama reveals both the potential for the full emergence of a new fighting labor movement and the obstacles facing the working class in getting organized.
While the story of the Bessemer union drive would require far more space than we have here, we can touch on some of the key lessons. First and foremost was the very real potential for a victory in Bessemer to touch off a much broader organizing drive in Amazon warehouses. Workers in dozens of Amazon plants contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) during the campaign in Bessemer to talk about organizing their plants. When our members turned up at the massive JFK8 plant in Staten Island in New York City, workers initially thought we were there to organize a union and lined up to talk to us.
It is not an exaggeration to say that a victory in Bessemer could have been a historic turning point for the American labor movement. Recognizing the stakes, we sent a number of members to Bessemer to assist the drive. By contrast, the rest of the organized left cynically chose to abstain and then criticize after the fact.
But we must also be very clear about the reasons for the defeat which include the union’s failure to develop a real organization within the plant including an organizing committee of workers on the shop floor. But even more serious was the failure to develop a set of demands related to working conditions based on discussion with the workers which the union would then commit to fight for in the first contract battle after the union was recognized. While the RWDSU was certainly correct to connect the battle for unionization to the fight for racial justice in a plant with an overwhelmingly Black workforce, in practice the emphasis on BLM was a fig leaf covering this lack of concrete demands.
Of course, Amazon brought massive resources to bear to defeat the unionization drive and used every dirty trick in the book. This was predictable. In the face of this assault, the union failed to level with workers about what they were up against or articulate a strategy to win real gains for workers in the plant.
The most dangerous conclusion union leaders and workers could draw, which is unfortunately possible if there are more defeats of genuine organizing drives, is that it is simply too difficult to organize workplaces like Amazon. Some organizers may look to the example of corporate pressure campaigns like OUR Walmart or Fight for $15, that emerged in the wake of the 2008 crisis, as a possible strategy.
Outside our intervention with 15 Now, these campaigns organized energetic, top-down, national days of action that captured broad support in society. In the context of the diffuse politics of the Occupy movement, it was a positive step forward that anger at economic inequality was directed into the workplace and a concrete demand. Over time, however, the demand for a union was lowered and played an increasingly symbolic role. Right now, with support for unions at a historic high, and the COVID backdrop sharpening consciousness on workers’ rights and organizing, a broad corporate pressure campaign isn’t a sharp enough tool for workers to combat the crises of the 2020s.
What started in Bessemer is far from a finished process and pressure from workers themselves to organize can force real battles. In fact, the NLRB may order a new vote in Bessemer because of Amazon’s blatant violations. However, there’s no indication that the RWDSU is going to learn the lessons of the first defeat.
We cannot sugarcoat the reality of the defeat in Bessemer. However, in the environment we are in, this may be only a temporary setback. The key thing is that worker activists learn the lessons for the inevitable battles to come.
Perspectives for 2021
While we do not know if the fight to organize the logistics sector will resume in the coming months, it is clear that the overall situation remains favorable. In addition to a certain advantage gained with the “labor shortage,” the added factors of inflation eroding real pay and massive pent-up anger at the state of society can certainly lead to the reemergence of the class struggle wave of 2018-19, potentially on a higher level.
Unions are hugely popular. Gallup has reported that two-thirds of people in the United States approve of labor unions, the highest rating in two decades, and the percentage of Americans who say they’d join a union if asked is similarly the highest it’s ever been.
Another factor is the verbal support of Joe Biden and others in the Democratic establishment as well as some bourgeois academics and parts of the media for union rights. Particularly striking was Biden’s statement of support for the Bessemer workers. This reflects the view — certainly not shared by corporate America — that unions are actually a useful safety valve in a capitalist society. There is also the argument that unions are a counterweight to the monopoly power of big tech which also represents a threat to bourgeois democracy and stable capitalist rule. This “support” for unions definitely only goes so far given the dependence of the Democrats on corporate donations and, of course, only extends to non-militant trade unionism. But, it is a crack which a skilful labor leadership could exploit.
In early 2021, Bloomberg published details of 450 collective bargaining agreements covering 1.5 million workers expiring this year. Most of these have not led to significant fights, although we have seen important strikes by FritoLay workers in Kansas, Nabisco workers, nurses in Massachusetts, and now by carpenters in the Seattle area.
The single biggest obstacle which workers face is the conservative leadership of most unions. This was seen with the RWDSU leadership’s role in Bessemer and with the capitulation of the Chicago Teachers Union leadership to Mayor Lori Lightfoot in February. This is compounded by the weakness of the militant activist layer who have real experience in labor battles in most unions.
The conservative approach of union leaders is also on full display in their failure to mobilize their members onto the streets for the PRO Act. If passed, the PRO Act would be the most significant pro-union piece of legislation passed since World War II. For precisely this reason, it will take a major fight to win it in any form. If the passive approach of the union leadership is seen to contribute to the failure to pass the PRO-Act this could put pressure on figures like Sara Nelson to run for AFL-CIO president next year, especially now that this is a more open contest in the wake of the death of Richard Trumka.
Role of the Left
As we have pointed out in the past, there is the outline of a “left pole” in the labor movement consisting of some local teachers’ unions, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the National Nurses United, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and union locals that have maintained a certain activist presence across the country. The UE, a small historically radical union, has partnered with the DSA to help workers get organized. However, it seems that this initiative has produced very few actual victories.
In general, DSA members are playing an increasingly important role in redeveloping the activist layer in the unions. This was first seen during the teachers’ revolt in 2018. But while many of the DSA union activists are seeking to rediscover and redevelop militant traditions (with the help of writers like Jane McAlevey), there is also a lack of clarity on the need to challenge and ultimately replace the existing leadership. In the public sector unions especially, this is also linked to the need to challenge labor’s political strategy which historically has been one of utter subservience to the Democratic Party.
In many cases, the existing union activist layer is negatively influencing and mistraining new DSA unionists, but this is not a finished process. Some will draw positive lessons over time through observing this layer’s weaknesses. More broadly, DSA has widened out discussion and connections in the labor movement. This is a small step forward, and something that will open up more space in the future for wrongheaded trends in the movement to be challenged.
New Forms of Organization
A feature of the past period has been the attempt of workers, especially in the tech economy, to organize at least partially outside the formal framework of the existing labor movement, including at Google (Alphabet Workers Union) and the #MeToo strikes.There have also been organizing drives in a number of service sector, and some public sector, workplaces with limited assistance from the existing labor movement.
The brief flare-up of Amazonians United pointed to the potential for frustrated workers to be attracted to an ultra-left “dual unionist” approach which will make winning victories even more difficult. But, at the same time, we need to see that a point can be reached where a far more decisive move to build new unions can develop, as happened in the 30s with the split in the AFL to form the CIO.
A major question for the labor movement, which was already posed by the Bessemer organizing drive, will be the ability to organize in the South. This is key given the extensive concentration of manufacturing and industrial employment in parts of the region. The weakness of the labor movement in the South can, paradoxically, make it easier for workers to get around the conservative leadership of national unions and have more control over their struggles, as we saw in the “red state” teachers’ strikes. But, the fight to organize in the South is also a struggle with a much more nakedly anti-union political regime. Given the high concentration of Black workers in the industrial workforce in the region, success in the battles to come will hinge on Black workers playing a leading role and the emergence of a layer of tested Black working class activists.
Black Lives Matter
The ascendency of Obama to the White House was the culmination of 40 years of brutal repression against the radical Black freedom movement and the rise of a Black middle-class layer that tied itself to liberal reformism, Democratic Party politics, and Wall Street.
The Obama years only exacerbated the crisis most Black working-class and poor people were facing in capitalist America. With increasing poverty, dilapidated housing, a rising prison population, mass unemployment, attacks on democratic and civil rights, the economic fallout from the 2007-08 financial crisis, and endemic law enforcement terror and violence, Obama’s “post-racial America” was a dream deferred.
The Obama presidency was a powerful symbolic moment for a nation born out of extermination, stolen land, chattel slavery, and working-class exploitation. To have a Black man lead the most powerful country in world history produced a critical debate and discussion among Black youth and workers about the history of racism and oppression in the United States.
The election of Barack Obama also reflected a dramatic shift in consciousness of white Americans on the question of racism. Racial division has been the most important, though not the only, brake on class struggle in U.S. history. The leaps forward in consciousness are tremendously positive and point toward the possibility of multiracial struggle.
The Black Lives Matter rebellion of last summer, sparked by the horrific police murder of George Floyd, was multiracial and youthful, and the demands taken up by the movement represented a real step forward. Demands like “Defund the Police” took aim at the backwards priorities of the state and the role of police as an oppressive tool of capital.
However, the movement lacked any cohesive leadership or national strategy, which severely hamstrung its ability to win any substantial reform. The recent conviction of Derek Chauvin was an important concession to the movement, though it was a relatively easy one for the establishment to make. The key factor that held back the movement is that the working class did not decisively make its mark on events.
The fact that there was extremely limited struggle following the more recent police murders of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant is an indication of the exhaustion and demoralization of the movement at this point.
With the crisis in the movement clearly pointing towards the need for a strategy centered on the multiracial working class and the Black Lives Matter Global Network mired in controversy, a vacuum has opened at the top of the activist core.
This vacuum is currently being filled by two contrasting but complementary forces: toxic identitarians and those more directly accommodating to the “liberal wing” of the ruling class.
The former organize around a set of utopian and idealistic demands like “abolish the police” however generally take up limited concrete initiatives like very localized reparations campaigns, often targeting other working class people.
The leaders of this wing of the movement are shielded from criticism by an especially toxic brand of identity politics that is remarkably more developed than even a few years ago wherein it is not allowed to productively raise differences or criticise Black or otherwise oppressed leaders without being accused of acting racist or “anti-Black.” This is a very dangerous method and serves only to isolate the movement from wider sections of society. This logic, where white working class people and youth play only a supplementary role in struggle, does the ruling class a tremendous service in helping to maintain racial division. It also objectively helps the right to score points and the far right to recruit. This toxic form of identity politics has to be distinguished from the genuine radicalization of millions of young people around issues of oppression.
The other force filling the vacuum is a section of the ruling class in the U.S. itself which has found itself less and less able to rely on crude racism to divide the working class. As a substitute for that, this section has adopted identity politics as protection against the development of class struggle.
This can be seen through the millions of dollars given to Black Lives Matter Global Network from big business, the extreme focus on diversity in the composition of Biden’s cabinet, the emergence of “woke capitalist” branding, as well as the billion dollar “diversity training” industry. Corporations like Amazon will use Black affinity groups to undercut class struggle, as we saw with their creation of the Black Employee Network which was used as a main vehicle for anti-union agitation during the struggle in Bessemer. Both toxic identity politics and the cynical identity politics of the ruling class posit that the solution to racism is personal repentance rather than collective action. This is clearly to the benefit of the capitalists themselves.
In this context, we are also seeing the reemergence of Black capitalist ideas. Beyond the clearly anti-working class nature of these ideas, they can also, in some cases, be a gateway to right wing ideas. We saw this with the small bump in support for Trump among Black men between 25-34. We can also see this with the popularity of Wall Street mogul Ray McGuire, whose “rags to riches” story is promoted by prominent Black figures like Sean Combs and Spike Lee.
Building an anti-racist struggle that can actually reckon with institutional racism and racist ideas in society will require the working class to put its stamp on events. In fact, decisive change will require a socialist revolution. The working class needs to assert its opposition to racism not just through universalist demands which are essential components of a socialist strategy, but also through an active orientation to anti-racist struggle. We showed an exceptionally important example of this through the actions of our members in the Amalgamated Transit Union in Minneapolis, bus drivers who refused to transport Black Lives Matter protestors to jail.
We are entering an extraordinarily turbulent period in history, and it is likely that a section of the working class will turn more decisively to class struggle in the coming years. In this context, it’s exceptionally important that fighting racism is a central tenet of these struggles. It is only this type of working class struggle against oppression that can marginalize the forces of toxic identity politics and unite the wider working class in common struggle.
Alongside the broader class struggle, we need a real Black freedom movement that is independent from the ruling class and is led by the Black working class and youth. The development of such a movement would require an abandonment of both toxic identity politics and the politics of Black capitalism.
The immigrant working class, particularly Latino immigrants, including millions of undocumented workers, could play a very central role in the redevelopment of the class struggle. As a super-exploited layer of the working class, they are a large part of the workforce in a number of industries including construction, farming, food processing, hotels, and restaurants. When the wider working class really begins to move, super-exploited layers including immigrants, Black workers, and certain sections of the white working class will play a leading role.
From the point of view of the corporate elite, “immigration reform” would be very desirable as a way of ensuring a regular, sustained, and controlled flow of immigrants that could be kept in a semi-permanent second class status. Recent reports of demographic trends across developed economies point towards an aging and declining population due to declining birth rates in decades to come. In the U.S. the population would already be in decline if it were not for immigration. The ruling class wants to keep an expanding and more youthful workforce. This will require a higher level of immigration.
However, the corporate elite does not always get what it wants. At the time of the mass immigrant rights movement in 2006-7, there was a concerted push for corporate immigration reform that was backed by President Bush, key Republicans and Democrats, the Chamber of Commerce, and some unions. Nevertheless, it failed. As a political project it is even more difficult today, but the needs of big business will keep forcing it back on the agenda.
The Biden administration entered office promising to end Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, but it was very vague on specifics. Biden reversed some measures like the separation of families at the border, the “Muslim ban,” and the threats to the Dreamer program for young immigrants. However, he has in no way “opened” the Southern border where the wave of desperate people fleeing from Central America is actually growing. He sent Kamala Harris to Central America, a region ravaged by imperialist policies, to warn people “not to come” to the U.S. He is also continuing Trump’s policy of working with Mexico to have them police the Southern border.
So, we will have a continuation of the Obama and Trump policies of mass deportations. Biden will say he wants immigration reform, but this will not happen anytime soon. However, the crisis at the border can spark major protest as it worsens. At some point, the mighty movement of immigrants to demand full citizenship rights, which was brutally cut across with mass terror under Bush, will resume. This will perhaps be in the context of the next wave of class struggle.
Struggle has continued in Puerto Rico in the wake of the mass movement that forced the resignation of Governor Ricky Rossello in 2019. The question of Puerto Rico’s colonial status is constantly in the backs of people’s minds on the island and among the diaspora. In the 2020 Puerto Rican elections,we saw a crack in the two party system that has dominated the island for decades. Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana and Partido Independentista de Puerto Rico, both parties pointing towards independence, got around 14% of the vote each. Currently, there are two bills in Congress addressing this question. One is calling for statehood. But with the other, we are seeing a real opportunity for a discussion around who should decide the fate of the island. AOC and Nydia Velazquez are putting forward the Puerto-Rican Self Determination Ac, which calls for a conference of delegates elected from different communities to discuss/debate the options which would then be put to a vote on the island.
It is not just the question of sovereignty that is radicalizing the working class and youth of Puerto Rico. The struggle for women’s liberation continues as in the rest of Latin America, fueled by increased domestic violence during the pandemic. Despite attempts from the political establishment to cut across the movement by declaring a state of emergency against gender violence, Colectiva Feminista continues to play a radicalizing role among the youth. They’ve done this by pointing to the hypocrisy of paying lip service to the movement while at the same time implementing austerity measures that leave workers and particularly women vulnerable.
Recently, the electrical grid which was previously one of, if not the largest publicly owned utility in any territory of the United States, was sold off to a Canadian/American company. Less than a week later, there were power outages that affected one in ten people on the island. It also led to massive layoffs of electrical workers whose union traditionally was extremely strong. We remember that the Ricky Renuncia movement which led to the ousting of the Governor Rossello, was largely fueled by the lack of electricity that many on the island experienced for two years and the deaths that were caused because of it.
The desire for democratic control over the island’s resources and the national question are leading to mass mobilizations in the capital, and we should expect to see the situation develop further. There is a strong activist history in the main university, and the labor movement is not shy when it comes to mass action. We should be prepared to engage with Puerto Ricans here on the mainland on these critical questions.
Youth and Students
Young people will be returning to school this fall after 18 months of extreme isolation. We will likely not understand the full impacts of school closures on young people for years, though we can be certain that large numbers will exit the past year and a half with dramatic learning loss, both academically and in their social-emotional progress, and deteriorated mental health.
A December McKinsey study found that by June 2021, students on average had lost five to nine months of learning. Black and Latino students could be six to twelve months behind.
Kids are not used to learning in isolation, without hands-on support from qualified teachers, opportunities for group discussion, and the chance to ask peers for help. More than one in four young people reported an increase in lost sleep because of anxiety, an increase in depression, and a loss of confidence. In the early months of the pandemic, the proportion of children’s visits to the ER for mental health reasons increased 24% for kids aged 5-11 and 31% for kids aged 12-17. These are devastating statistics that demonstrate the immense challenges ahead for families, educators, and children. The desperation of a section of youth is of course not fixed and could be overcome, especially in the context of explosive struggle.
Where the millennial generation grew up in an extremely turbulent period of history, with the Great Recession, 9/11, two wars, and the beginnings of social revolt through Occupy and Black Lives Matter, this does not compare with the turbulence that will be experienced by Generation Z.
Gen Z and young millennials make up the most progressive, and least partisan, generation in the U.S. On issues like sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, members of Gen Z hold more progressive viewpoints than any other generation. Prior to the 2016 election, a Pew Research Center report found that 50% of young adults self-identified as independents rather than Democrats or Republicans. Shortly before the 2018 midterms, a poll conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that among independents between 18-24, only 22.7% expressed trust toward the Democratic Party and 12.9% expressed trust in the GOP.
It is likely that young people will be among the first to move into struggle as the Biden honeymoon comes to a close. This could find expression around issues of oppression, as young people played a key role in the Black Lives Matter rebellion and could also be moved to struggle around attacks on reproductive rights or LGBTQ rights, or around the climate which is an issue of tremendous importance to young people in particular.
A new survey from the United States Conference of Mayors found that 80% of voters between 18-29 view global warming as a “major threat to human life on earth.” When asked about the solution to the climate crisis, nearly three times as many respondents said “drastic times call for bold measures ” vs. “beyond the capability of the U.S. government to act.”
As it becomes increasingly clear that Biden and the Democrats cannot provide those bold measures, this could spur young people into struggle. This fall, as students are finally back in the classroom and reunited with their friends and classmates, we could see a reemergence of youth and student struggles, especially around the climate.
Members of Gen Z are also more likely than any other generation to identify as LGBTQ. There is a much higher awareness of queer issues among kids and teens and the ongoing assault on the queer community from the right could be a spur to struggle for this generation.
In the medium term, this generation is poised to play a critical role in detonating struggles, as we are seeing across the world. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, already identify as socialists, and the next period could see substantial numbers turning to revolutionary ideas.
Perspectives for the climate crisis make up a crucial part of the backdrop for all other perspectives. Scientists predict that, having already surpassed numerous climate “tipping points,” the world could experience a rapid escalation in climate change-driven disruptions to human activity.
We are looking ahead to decades of extreme weather events, mass migration, and widespread loss of biodiversity. This can trigger disruptions to food supply, water supply, and even the supply of habitable land. Each season brings with it unique, extreme weather events from wildfires to snow storms to floods and hurricanes. This will become a continual reminder for the working class and the ruling class that something has to be done.
While the existing youth climate organizations have been disoriented by the Biden honeymoon, as his climate climb down comes into clearer focus, they could rapidly adopt a more combative approach. If they do not, it’s possible that, for a period of time, climate protests are of a spontaneous and unorganized character. This will ultimately need to be overcome.
As we detailed above, the ruling class cannot simply ignore the climate crisis. They will be forced to intervene to varying degrees so as to not undermine their own system. However, actually carrying out the scale of transition needed in the time frame available is simply impossible on the basis of a free market economy. There is too little opportunity for coherent planning and public investment under capitalism for it to be capable of solving the climate crisis. This is not to mention the challenge of overcoming the political obstacles in the form of the mighty fossil fuel industry.
While there may be illusions among ordinary people in certain steps taken by the ruling class to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, these illusions will be temporary. Climate related radicalization and social struggle is an inevitability in the medium and long term. Within this struggle, increasingly wide layers will be open to broad propaganda about the need for a socialist transformation of society, though there will be confusion and reformist illusions in how this can be achieved. Already we see an increased openness to demands for public ownership and democratic planning among many young people we meet who are radicalizing around the climate, and we will need to be clear on the need for an explicitly revolutionary approach.
The past two years have seen an increase in domestic violence, attacks on reproductive rights, and a childcare crisis that has wracked working class women in particular.
Domestic violence increased by 8% under lockdown. This was a global phenomena that the United Nations began referring to as the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women.
In the U.S., working class women — and Black women in particular — have faced an enormous series of challenges over the past two years. One out of every four women who reported being unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of a lack of childcare. This childcare crisis included both widespread school closures and the dramatic decline in available childcare spots for children who are not yet of school age.
In the month of September 2020 alone, 865,000 women left the labor force. This is four times more than the number of men who left the labor force during that same period and more than three times the number of jobs gained by women that month.
This crisis prompted Biden and the Democrats to include sweeping child care benefits in their March stimulus bill in the form of both a child tax credit and a child care tax credit. The child tax credit amounts to $3,600 per child yearly, while the child care tax credit provides an additional $250-300 a month per child. This will have a substantial impact on working moms in particular. However, it remains unclear how long these benefits will last, and any attempt from the federal government to pull that support could lead to a real fight back.
In May 2021 the Supreme Court announced they would hear a case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which, if decided in Dobbs’ favor, would severely undermine Roe v. Wade. Alongside attacks on reproductive rights at the state level, we are looking at the potential for renewed struggle around women’s rights in the next period. Mass movements around abortion rights, both offensive and defensive, have become a key point of struggle for women in several countries in recent years, pointing to how explosive this issue can potentially be.
It is important to note that today, consciousness around fighting racism in the U.S. is stronger than consciousness around fighting sexism. This is due to several factors. The first is that the BLM uprising last summer put the fight against racism front and center in U.S. consciousness. The second is the co-optation of women’s struggles by liberal feminists who are narrowly focused on “girlboss” feminism rather than genuine women’s liberation. This has both pacified a liberal layer of the struggle and turned off a more radical layer. The rejection of “girlboss” feminism by this more radical layer, perhaps best illustrated by the complete lack of enthusiasm for figures like Kamala Harris, is overwhelmingly positive and an illustration of developments in consciousness in the past few years. However, especially in the absence of a left leadership capable of providing a real counter to bourgeois feminism, this mood has not developed into a coherent fightback. This means that many radicalizing young women do not have a clear sense of how to fight back against sexism. The final factor is that a brand of toxic identity politics has taken hold that suggests white people are universally incapable of experiencing oppression. The impact of this on young white women in particular is that they see their oppression as women as less central, or — at worst — illegitimate.
It is likely though that, given the genuine threat to reproductive rights on a national scale, made even clearer by the Texas “bounty hunter” law, this consciousness could be cut across and a real struggle could emerge. Another element that could cut across this would be a high profile example of gender violence like we saw with the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer in the U.K.
Young women have played a major role in key struggles like BLM and the Bernie campaign. Gender oppression was not the central axis in these struggles, but undoubtedly was a contributing element to the politicization of this layer. The lessons and experience of those movements will be applied to struggles against gender oppression. Although discussions about gender and sexual violence have not been at the forefront in the U.S. recently, we should not underestimate the impact of #MeToo and related phenomena on consciousness. The conditions driving these developments have not gone away and in reality have worsened in the context of the pandemic and the economic recession, pointing to the potential for the emergence of struggle around gender and sexual violence.
As we wrote above in the context of youth and students, another important arena of potential struggle is around ongoing attacks on trans rights which has become a Republican pet project. We’ve seen a ramping up of attacks on trans youth as well as on trans women in sports. If Republicans continue with their current approach of doubling down on social issues, the centerpiece of which is their campaign against queer people, this could spur important fight backs.
It is clear that economic and political processes globally and within the U.S. are marked by a high degree of flux. While bourgeois commentators in the imperialist countries are delighted by the evidence of an economic rebound, they are also beginning to see the new dark clouds on the horizon, including the danger of inflation, speculative bubbles bursting, and impending climate catastrophe.
It is clear that, for large sections of the world, the COVID disaster is far from over, and for tens of millions their economic situation has gotten far worse. Even in the U.S., many millions are falling through the stimulus safety net. This will get worse as the unemployment top-up is ended and eviction moratoriums expire.
We need to underline that there is no longer a path to a stable longer term position for capitalism. The next period will be defined by sharpening inter-imperialist tension, multiplying climate-related disasters, and the need for the U.S. and other ruling classes to increasingly intervene in the economy, revealing the complete bankruptcy of the “free market.”
Meanwhile, political polarization has intensified. Neoliberal ideology has lost any significant base of support, and the ruling class is scrambling to fill the vacuum. At both poles, radicalization can deepen, especially if the economy heads into a new tailspin and Biden’s agenda is stalled. The Republican Party, now consolidated as the party of Trump, is no longer playing by the rules of the “two party system.”
The consciousness of broad sections of the population could shift more rapidly and strikingly than at any time in the recent past. We expect that with the Biden honeymoon coming to an end, the youth will begin to rebel first around the climate crisis and fighting oppression. The favorable situation for the class struggle created by the “labor shortage” and inflation could also lead sections of the working class to begin taking action.
A combination of resurgent workers’ struggle and the whip of counterrevolution from the right taking advantage of Biden’s weakening can create the conditions that lead to a more decisive breakthrough on the left, including mass discussions on the need for a new party and possibly steps in that direction.
All of this shows the vital importance of revolutionaries engaging in the debates breaking out on the wider left, including in and around DSA. History shows that favorable objective situations will not last indefinitely and that openings can only be seized if there are people who are organized and prepared to seize them. Even a modestly sized revolutionary organization can play an outsized role in helping to push the process forward.